Updated: Oct 30, 2020
You have a lot on your plate. You train hard, life hard—so it’s pretty normal to feel fatigued, right?
The fitness industry is doing a disservice when the messages are ‘train harder, eat less’. So many humans are doing their absolute best to follow this prescription because there’s not enough evidence to prove that there could be a different way.
We’re bombarded with sexy sounding F45 shreds and challenges and 1200 calorie diets that are going to make our lives better and finally we will have the confidence and feel the worthiness we’re promised.
A hormonal shit show? Most likely, yes.
A recent study in New Zealand found that 45% of recreational female trainees experience low energy availability.
Wait, let’s first unpack what ‘low energy availability’ is.
Low energy availability (LEA) is a term used to describe a situation where energy (calorie) intake of a human is less than they expend (essentially living in a chronic calorie deficit) so much that basal physiological needs are not met. The body doesn’t have enough energy for each of it’s systems to maintain a normal, healthy function, which can result in a host of hormonal disruptions (one of the biggest being menstrual cycle dysfunction—but it’s not limited to this at all!)
There is a mismatch between energy intake (nutrition) and the energy expended in exercise and living your life.
LEA comes under the umbrella of RED-S, which was once only considered for the athletic population (particularly in sports like gymnastics and dance where aesthetics is an important component) but more and more we are seeing this rife amongst gen pop who just love to work out, are doing 12 week challenges, shreds and dipping into LEA wither it be intentionally or unintentionally.
Not all women who have low body fat experience LEA! It's often the byproduct of good intentions but with some missing pieces, like not having the knowledge of the severe impact that being in a chronic calorie deficit can have on your health.
Here are some of the effects that low energy deficiency can have on performance:
Here are some of the effects that low energy deficiency can have on health:
Not all of these symptoms above will affect all humans, this will be dependent on genetic predispositions, training history, lifestyle, and so on. The biggest things for pre-menopasual women is dysfunction with the menstrual cycle—BUT it is not always a symptom, it is one of the symptoms. However, it is a big fat red flag that things are not right if there is a loss of menstruation or irregularity. Here’s a simple run down of what happens when you lose your cycle: Kisspeptin (hormone that starts the menstrual cycle process) throws in the towel because it’s getting no love (enough nutrition), which means FSH and LH lose their jobs of stimulating estrogen so that follicles can grow to then bring on ovulation (the main event in the menstrual cycle *cue fireworks*!), which then produces progesterone! A well function reproductive system (whether you want kids or not) is what good physiological health is for women in their reproductive years. In menopausal women, staying out of LEA is equally important to avoid the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and the risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic disease. Your outside shell is NOT a measure of health. If there is a hormonal shit show going on under the hood, your size small clothes and muscled arms are not going to be able to help you. So when you think about it, if this is going on and you’re experiencing those performance and health issues who is really benefiting here? Who is benefitting from being over stressed, underfed, undercovered, exhausted, trying to work with a body that is not functioning well? You? Didn’t think so. Take Harriet as an example. Harriet is up at 5am to hit a 6am group fitness class. Sometimes F45, sometimes CrossFit, sometimes she just goes for a run. But she’s a morning exerciser. She doesn’t like to eat in the morning so goes straight to the gym, does her workout, has a shower then rushes to work. She’s not usually hungry after her workout (which she low-key likes because she’s told it’s more ‘fat burning’. She doesn’t admit that though, she justifies it as not having enough time to eat). Often she has a morning meeting so she doesn’t get a chance to eat something solid (except a coffee) before 10am. Harriet starts to feel pretty woozy by then so has a quick smoothie before she has to be at another meeting. Throughout the day she has small snacks but when she gets home she is starving! She has a massive dinner and snacks all the way up until bedtime because she is just ravenous and frankly exhausted. Sound familiar? Firstly, overnight you go into an unintentional fast (sleep). You wake in a catabolic state. Then you exercise already in a catabolic state and move into a more catabolic state. By not fueling before or after exercise you’re putting yourself into low energy availability. This creates elevated cortisol whereby your body is not going to recover and repair. Even if you’re bookending all your calories at the end of the day, if you’re delaying food post-exercise you can well be in that subclinical state of LEA and experience those health and performance symptoms from RED-S diagrams above. This is where nutrient timing plays a really important role in female health and recovery. If a female trainee eats within a particular window of time, around 30 minutes for protein then prioritises carbohydrates at the same time or shortly afterwards it will shut down the catabolic state and some of those symptoms of LEA. You also want to ensure that you have regularity with your food throughout the day and don't go for long periods without eating. The tricky thing is that you can often not feel hungry after exercise, which is when you can move into this LEA state. You need enough energy coming in to support health, to handle stress, as well as to reap the rewards of the effort you put into the gym, to get fitter, faster, stronger. You need enough food to meet the demands not only of your exercise but of LIVING–– You need nutrition to support your training, your lifestyle, the stress of being a mum, an employee, an entrepreneur, a solo parent, a caregiver, a partner, a friend … all those stressors on top of training add up. Subclinical LEA is not just about having a missing cycle and it is NOT just for athletes. Just a reminder of what other symptoms you can experience from low energy availability are:
Waking up tired
Decrease in exercise performance
Injuries and niggles that are ongoing or won’t heal (raised cortisol = decrease in immunity)
Poor gut health
Changes in menstrual cycle (not overly reliable as has different thresholds for women)
Putting on body fat (lack of energy -> lack of sleep -> more fat storage)
Decreased basal metabolic rate
Kinda looks like overtraining right? Here’s the kicker: all of this is an issue of under recovering which (I think you will have guessed by now!) is due to ... dum dum dum: lack of energy availability (FOOD!). Underrecovering from your performance in the gym and your performance in life. ‘If your body cannot maintain basic health it cannot adapt to and recover from training +/or reach optimal performance levels’ The more you buy into eating less, exercising more, the more you are taking yourself away from what you actually desire. So, if any of this is sounding like you, what do you do?! First and foremost, if you have a missing period work with a professional like a dietician, functional medicine doctor, endocrinologist, qualified coach. You need to carefully manage your energy demand with your energy intake to get the results you want while maintaining your health and performance. This usually will come in the form of slowly increasing calorie intake and looking at training variables and intensity. But this is also extremely nuanced, which is why monolith advice is not helpful. The female endocrine system is extremely volatile and differs from woman to woman across different ages and phases. What you can do on your own right now is start to TRACK. Start tracking your cycle and your biofeedback markers.
How is your stress?
How is your sleep?
How much are you eating?
Are you meeting your daily calorific needs?
Are you eating regularly through the day?
Are you eating sufficiently before and after exercise?
How is your sex drive?
How is your mood and energy?
How is your hunger and fullness?
How are you recovering from your training?
Has your performance plateaued?
How long is your cycle?
What symptoms are you experiencing?
Is it irregular? How so?
Things start to get a little tricky when we get into the perimenopausal years, specifically the 40s, which is where LEA can be rife! Busy women wearing a million different hats paired with hormonal shifts—it’s a lot. There can be confusion as to whether these symptoms are due to moving into menopause or something else. If you’re wondering if you’re going into menopause first find out when your mother and aunties went through menopause to get an idea of when it might happen for you, as it is mainly genetic. If you are still unsure what is going on if there are irregularities with your cycle, your body composition is doing things that just don’t make sense or you have some of those symptoms above then start looking deeper into those biofeedback markers. You can also get blood work done to see what your luteinizing hormone, estrogen, progesterone and testosterone are doing. Lastly, but certainly not the least important, work with a therapist to unpack your relationship with exercise, food, body image, your identity and your self worth story. Wait, I know what you’re thinking: ‘but I want to LOSE weight. I don't want to eat more—so what am I supposed to do?!’ There is an art to managing health, aesthetics and performance. You can have it all but sometimes you can't have it all at the same time. Depending on you and your circumstances, this will most likely look very different to your best mate, your sister or the other women at the gym. Work with professionals to help you on this path. You deserve to be well fed, in good health, energised and be crushing it in the gym and in your life. Do any of these things resonate with you? Are you like ‘okay, what do I do now?! What is the next step?’ Reach out and tell me what's going on with you so I can help to point you in the right direction! I was in this place for many, many years. I don't want this for you but I get how scary and confusing it can feel. You're not alone. But I will say this again: You deserve to be well fed, in good health, energised and be crushing it in the gym and in your life. If you don't feel like this right now then you have to ask yourself: is what you're doing working for you? Remember you can always go back to what you were doing if you make a change.
If you want to be part of a supportive community and you want to eat and move in a way that has your health and performance goals in mind, you can get onto the waitlist for Grit and Grace here.